Friday, April 25, 2014

Protein Supplements: Useful Aid or Waste of Money?

I am frequently asked about protein supplements; do you need them, will they help with recovery, muscle growth and weight loss? There isn’t a simple answer so this week I am going to analyze protein supplements and dairy based proteins specifically because they are far and away the most common form on the market.

Before I get started it’s important to point out that many believe that milk is not fit for human consumption. Cows milk has been blamed for various maladies such as being responsible for acne, making kids smell like cows and even blowing up barns! (1)(2)(3)

While all that seems a little extreme there is a legitimate reason to doubt whether or not animal milk is an essential part of the human diet. First it is one of the more highly processed foods you will find. It is pasteurized at high temperatures and homogenized, together these processes contribute to the destruction or alteration of essential fats, enzymes and nutrients. This makes it difficult for many to digest milk and to absorb any of the nutrients that may survive all of that processing. Pasteurized cow's milk is the number one allergic food in the United States. (4)

So why even bother with milk or other dairy products? The simple answer is it’s complicated.

Consider that alternative milks such as almond, rice and coconut contain little if any protein unless they are infused with some other form of processed protein. So be aware if you were counting on the milk in your child’s cereal or glass with meals contributing to their overall protein intake. For this reason telling someone to avoid animal milk may be irresponsible if the family struggles to get the child to consume other forms of protein. It’s better to get nutrients from an average source than to be malnourished. Getting children to eat a nutritionally adequate diet is a process and once your children starts consuming more eggs and chicken for example then it would be an opportune time to wean them off animal milk and try an alternative if you so choose.

And don’t worry about the full fat.

Whole Fat Milk Leads to Greater Muscle Growth?

I haven’t discussed the role of dairy in muscle growth yet in spite of the fact that it’s surely of interest to you – so let’s get to it now.  Researchers compared skim milk to whole milk in the post-training period to see which would produce greater anabolic (muscle building) effects.  They pitted 14oz of skim milk against 8oz of whole milk, to make them calorically equal. 

Theoretically, the results should be equal or possibly in the favor of skim milk, since it had six more grams of protein.  The research actually showed that whole milk was more effective than skim, though, despite the lower protein content and equal total calories.  This is another notch in favor of whole-fat over fat-free, and while it is just one study, at the very least it seems clear that fat (specifically milk fat), is certainly not going to inhibit results if consumed post-training.

Whole-fat dairy from grass-fed cows contains a boatload of powerful vitamins and healthful fatty acids.  These vitamins are fat-soluble, meaning they are bonded to the fatty acids in the dairy, and are therefore nearly non-existent in fat-free dairy (the same goes for the fatty acids, too, obviously).  The fat is where vitamins A, D, E and K2 are, as well as CLA, butyric acid, omega-3 fatty acids, trans-palmitoleate and medium-chain triglycerides.  Low-fat and fat-free dairy are woefully lacking in all these areas.

CLA is present in human body fat in proportion to dietary intake, and has been shown to be a potentially powerful ally in the fight against cancer.  Meat and dairy from grass-fed animals provide the richest source of CLA on the planet, containing three to five times more CLA than feedlot-raised animals.  CLA has been found to greatly reduce tumor growth in animals, and possibly in humans as well.  

In my mind, and from the totality of the data, it is clear that if you choose to consume dairy (and I’m not even saying you have to do so), your best bet for health and body composition purposes would be whole-fat, grass-fed and gently pasteurized options.  Cultured and fermented products get an even bigger gold star.

However, finding companies that make such products can often be difficult. To make matters worse, not all organic dairy options are created equal, and not all are even grass-fed.  In fact, many organic dairies produce milk and dairy that is not significantly better than conventionally produced grain-fed options.  

To find out whether the organic dairy available to you is of high quality, or even grass-fed, check out this report from the Cornucopia Institute. (5)

It will provide you with national and local organic dairy options; as well as how much time their cows spend on pasture, whether they receive antibiotics, and more.

For example, Organic Valley (read labels, they do have a 100% grass-fed variety) and Thomas Organic (not listed in report but would rank highly if they were) are two brands that are available locally and likely your best options.  In contrast, Horizon, the largest organic dairy producer, would not even provide their information to the Cornucopia Institute.  I don’t know about you, but I am not willing to consume food from a company that is not transparent about its production practices.

Now back to the original question on dairy based protein powders. What brands are the best, what should you be looking for, are they a waste of money? Again my answer is it depends. The most popular form of protein on the market is whey protein. Casein protein (also from dairy milk) is another form that is often pushed by supplement companies and touted as a “time released protein.”

So what’s the difference between whey and casein, is one better than the other?

During the day and after exercise your muscle needs fast-assimilating protein such as in quality whey to counteract muscle tissue breakdown due to the effects of daily stressors and physical exercise.

Slow proteins such as casein have shown to be less effective than whey protein in supporting your body's immune defenses and promoting muscle protein synthesis after exercise. Nonetheless, cheese casein has the anabolic advantage in the long term, and that's due to its ability to induce a slow steady release of amino acids to your muscle for several hours at a time. Therefore cheese casein can serve as an ideal muscle food during the sleeping hours of the night.

Your quality cheese products should come from premium, preferably raw aged cheese such as cheddar, colby, gouda, swiss and emmanthal, or fresh cheese such as organic cottage cheese from pasture-fed cows.

Another option is plain milk, which is largely casein protein (anywhere between 80-90% of protein content). While most milk is of low quality due to excessive processing one brand that is pretty good is Thomas Organic grass-fed whole milk (Plum or Whole Foods). Thomas uses gentle pasteurization (high temperature, short time), which doesn’t completely denature or destroy fragile nutrients so it’s a good option and much better than any casein powders you will find.

The bottom line is don’t get caught up in the flood of supplement marketing hype! You should not be concerned with things like slow or fast proteins because your kids probably don’t eat enough vegetables, get adequate sleep, do eat too much processed food and lack solid training programs.  The last thing on your/their mind should be what kind of protein powder they should be using. If you’ve perfected all of the other lifestyle factors that influence on and off field performance then you can take a deeper look into protein type/timing.

In the meantime, stick with whole food sources whenever possible to ensure adequate protein intake in addition to their plethora of naturally occurring nutrients that are often stripped out in protein supplements. 


(1) Dairy cows cause explosion:

(2) Does milk cause acne?

(3) Cows’ milk makes kids behave like cows!

Dairy Quality Survey

Protein Supplement Buying Tips:

Most whey proteins provide some benefit. But, due to the ingredients, the source of the whey, the concentration of beneficial nutrients, or the type of processing, many whey products simply don't deliver what they promise. I need to point out that I have WASTED a lot of money on protein supplements over my athletic/professional career and because of that experience I can state with confidence these drinks are not necessary! They are fine if they compliment a well balanced diet.

Avoid all casein protein powders! They are all highly processed garbage.

Choose all-natural, pasture-fed cows' whey, NOT pesticide-treated, grain-fed cows' whey

Choose whey made without GMOs.

Cold processed, NOT heat processed

Most whey is heat processed which:

Makes the whey acidic and nutritionally deficient

Damages the immuno-supportive micronutrients and amino acids

Makes whey inadequate for consumption

Cold processed whey protects the nutrients in their natural state.

Acid-free processing, NOT Acid / Ion Exchange Processing

Whey protein concentrate, NOT protein isolates
Protein isolates are proteins stripped away from their nutritional cofactors. There are three problems with that...

All isolates are exposed to acid processing.
Your body cannot assimilate proteins in isolated form.
Due to over-processing, isolates are deficient in key amino acids and nutritional cofactors, such as fats and enzymes.

Many protein powders both whey and non-whey could contain dangerous levels of heavy metals like mercury, lead, cadmium, and arsenic.

A Consumer Reports' evaluation showed some leading brands of protein powders exceeded United States Pharmacopoeia's (USP) recommended safety limits for certain heavy metals.

Brands that meet most of these criteria (ranked in order of quality)

Action Whey (hands down the best on the market, but also pricey)

Miracle Whey

Tera’s Whey

Reserveage Organics Grass Fed Whey (best value)

True Athlete Whey Protein (lowest price)

I have tried all of these and none of them are awful.

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